Traces of the Queen of Sheba under antiquity's dust

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

Her name was Makeda, better known as Queen of Sheba. In Arabic folklore, she was called Bilqis. For the Greeks, she was simply Black Minerva. The Bible and the Koran make conflicting references to the wise, beautiful African queen.

But did she really exist?

It appeared that only the wisdom of Solomon could unravel the mystery. But now, a sprawling 3,000-year-old temple being unearthed in northern Yemen could solve the puzzle surrounding the fabled Queen of Sheba and become the "eighth wonder of the world."

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The Mahram Bilqis temple near the ancient city of Marib has long been associated with the biblical queen. But there were questions of when it existed. Recent finds, however, prove the sanctuary, also known as the Temple of the Moon God, existed as early as 1,500 BC and was in continuous use until the 6th century AD. That places it as a leading pilgrimage center during the queen's rule.

Inscriptions and artifacts could finally determine whether the Queen of Sheba actually existed, or that the romantic legends surrounding her simply incorporated the achievements of several individuals.

"If we believe the historical associations, then almost certainly she would have been inside this sanctuary. She would have been worshipping there. That's astounding," says Bill Glanzman, a professor of archaeology at the University of Calgary, Alberta, who is heading the excavation. "To have such historical, religious, and cultural connection to one site is tremendous. Not often in archaeology do we have that."

Meanwhile, the sophisticated ground penetrating radar has also revealed that the temple complex, half buried under the desert sands, is far more extensive than was thought, making it the biggest pre-Islamic sanctuary in the Arab world.

According to the Old Testament, the Queen of Sheba, at the head of an 800-camel caravan laden with gold, spices, and jewels, visited King Solomon in Jerusalem to test his wisdom by asking him to solve a number of riddles. Some legends have it that she gave birth to his son, who founded the royal dynasty of Ethiopia.

The various tales are seen as evidence of the important commercial relations that existed between Arabia and ancient Israel. Archaeological finds have also proved the existence of advanced trading states in Yemen as early as the beginning of the first millennium BC. Far from being an isolated civilization, it was a buzzing commercial center.

"The sanctuary is packed with artifacts, pottery, artwork, and inscriptions, opening a new door to the ancient civilizations of southern Arabia," says Mr. Glanzman. Most of the temple's treasures lie buried beneath the sand and, with perhaps just a tiny fraction of the site excavated, it could take another 15 years to unravel all its secrets and treasures.

Europeans first came across the temple in the middle of the last century, but the first excavation only began in 1951. The expedition was led by the late American archaeologist, Wendell Phillips, but within months he and his fellow workers were forced to flee for their lives. The local governor accused them of failing to translate temple inscriptions that he believed led to hidden gold and threatened to have them executed. There was no gold recovered, although Mr. Phillips did uncover a complete bronze statue that is considered a masterpiece of ancient art.

Similar security problems exist today, with many of Yemen's rich archaeological sites located in unruly tribal areas beyond the sway of the central government. Some archaeologists were among the dozens of Westerners briefly held as hostages by tribesmen in recent years.

The 18-strong international excavation team, which began work in 1998, travels the three-mile distance from their hotel in Marib to the site, escorted and protected by armed Bedouin tribesmen.

Marib was once the capital of the ancient kingdom of Saba, as Sheba was known. It is probably the richest archaeological site in Yemen. Apart from temples, it is home to a 2,230 foot-long dam built between two mountains in the 8th century BC that provided irrigation to a vast area for hundreds of years. And, if the Mahram Bilqis excavation unearths Sheba's treasures, the temple could one day do for Yemen's tourism industry what the Giza pyramids have done for Egypt.

"We think the temple has the potential to become a world-class tourist site, where tourists can walk around and really feel what happened thousands of years ago," Glanzman says.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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